Switched On: More options for getting from scribble to screen

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

With all the hoopla around the iPhone 3G, the finger has taken center stage as the input device of choice on the go. However, last week's column on the prospects of the Livescribe Pulse was actually the penultimate one on the subject of smart pens -- at least two alternatives have entered the market. Both are based heavily on reference designs from Israeli companies that have taken a different approach than Livescribe.

Rather than relying on a camera to read small dots on special paper, these pens work with practically any paper. And unlike the bulky Pulse with its ostentatious display, they are practically indistinguishable from normal pens and both come with software that can do a decent job of converting handwriting to text. The tradeoff is that some of the electronics have been offloaded to a small receiver that must be positioned on the paper, creating a two-piece solution.

IOGEAR's Mobile Digital Scribe, powered by Pegasus Technology, is a follow-on from a similar earlier product that required that the receiver be tethered to the PC. The Scribe can still function this way. In fact, when connected to a PC, the pen can be used to scribble (presumably for quick doodles, otherwise why not just use the keyboard?) just as its tethered predecessor could. Writing appears on an on-screen note that appears as soon as the writer begins to write, and the software can have these pages "float" on the screen as sticky notes..

When detached from the PC, the small receiver unit, which has a rechargeable battery, stores whatever you write with the pen. After the receiver is connected back to the PC, notes are uploaded. The Mobile Digital Scribe software can file notes into folders and save them as JPEGs, but unlike the Pulse (which automatically detects when you start writing on a new page), the Scribe requires that a button must be pressed on the receiver to signal you've started one; a small LCD tracks how many pages are in memory. A bigger annoyance seems to be a holdover from the original tethered product. The software puts up an alert bubble whenever the PC is started without the receiver attached, and there's no way to turn this off. Fun.

Another digital pen option hitting retailers this month is the Dane-Elec ZPen, based on pen positioning technology from EPOS. In contrast to the nice travel case that the IOGEAR product comes in, the $100 ZPen set includes not even a drawstring carry bag; it would be nice of its two pieces traveled better together using some kind of clip or magnets so that one didn't get misplaced. The ZPen receiver is larger than that of the Mobile Digital Scribe and has only a few status LEDs instead of the LCD. While the blinking capture light is helpful for ensuring that doodles are being digitized, it may attract the curious. The ZPen also has no mouse mode and the software lacks a few features of the IOGEAR product, most important among these are searching for text in a note (promised as a free download coming soon), and another being the ability to quickly copy pieces of a note to the Clipboard. For that, you must first save as a PDF.

However, the ZPen receiver includes a USB connector for plugging directly into a notebook to transfer notes. Even better, the receiver's gigabyte of mass storage flash memory makes it simple to copy stored documents onto the PC or share them with a friend or colleague via good old sneakernet. Dane-Elec has also cleverly includes both the Mac and PC reader software for its file format on the flash drive. No installation is required. Just open the reader applications to view your files. Also, in contrast to the tiny clips on the Scribe receiver, the large clipboard-style clip on the ZPen is capable of gripping onto whole pads of paper and affixing it to a new piece of sheet starts a new page in the virtual pad, another thoughtful touch.

While both the Mobile Digital Scribe and ZPen would be more palatable if they captured natively into a more standard file format such as JPEG or PDF, both do a solid job of recording pages of notes and line drawings. For anyone who has to do extensive note-taking, the Pulse's audio synchronization is worth the extra money. However, on the other end of the spectrum and for more casual capture, the ZPen's clever, simple design competes best with the common and ubiquitous ink-slinger.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.